I started out homeschooling with a curriculum plan in mind. I figured I’d teach my kids everything I like learning. That lasted for about three weeks. Then I became an unschooler. A militant unschooler. That lasted for about three years. Then I became a mom who is teaching to the test.

You could call me hypocritical or untethered or unfocused. But at this point, I’m done with the labels. All I care about is figuring out what my kids want and helping them to get it.

Here is a summary of how my son is getting into college. Hopefully.

Plan 1: No academics
My oldest son was going into fourth grade when I took him out of school. We did not have any curriculum. He was doing whatever he wants. I told myself that he wasn’t missing any opportunities in the future by doing unschooling as a pre-teen. Here’s why:

We already know from extensive research that kids intuitively learn basic math. You don’t need to teach other math until sixth grade. And we know that kids teach themselves how to read. Eventually. You don’t need to teach kids to read either.

This means that if you start studying for the SAT when you are in eighth grade, you have three years to learn the math and read the more difficult books to get practice reading and writing. You could do all of that studying in three hours a day. And then that would take you to 11th grade, which is junior year of school. You could spend that year studying for the SAT.

So if kids spend three hours a day studying for four years, they will do fine on the SAT. It seems that doing whatever you want for your whole childhood, aside from that proscribed time, is a pretty good deal if you want to go to college.

Plan 2: Unschooling
My son announced he wants to get a Ph.d in science. He said he was not sure what kind. Maybe astrobiology. Maybe ecology. Maybe biology. It changes. But it never changes from a Ph.d in science.

His personality type is INTJ. That means a Ph.d is a very good route for him. It is very likely that he will be fulfilled solving complex problems in an academic setting. So I get on board. (Want to know what is a good route for your kid? This course.)

My son takes biology with a tutor. He loves it. One hour a day via Skype. A local high schooler comes to our house an hour a day for math. My son doesn’t like math but he understands he needs it for a science degree so he is happy to do it.

Plan 3: Hard-core academics
My 13-year-old son hears my ten-year-old son talking about college. Kids in my younger son’s music program go to the very very top schools for music. My younger son already has in his head that he will accept nothing but the best when it comes to music school.

So my older son asks about college for science. “What are the best ones for science?”

I tell him, “It doesn’t really matter where you go for college it matters where you get your PhD.

“Well, I’d get into a better PhD school from a better college, right?”

He is right. Even though I don’t want more pressure about schools in our house, I capitulate: “Yes. That’s true.”

So I look up best colleges for science, and unless you are doing something oddly specific, like mining, the usual suspects are the best schools for science. I avoid bringing up the topic of Ivy League schools, but my son asks.

“Can I get into Harvard?”


“Why not?”

“Pretty much no one can.”

“Well, let’s just try.”

Crap. I do more research.

I call an SAT tutor. His specialty is getting kids to get perfect SAT scores. I hate that I am even calling him but I want to honor my son’s ambition.

How smart is my son anyway? I have no idea.

The guy says he can help my son once he has done algebra II and geometry. And he can help my son with the verbal section when my son is reading books like Great Expectations.

So now we are on the fast track. My son is doing AP biology, and he has a writing tutor who focuses on what he needs to know for the SAT. I get a Barron’s book to prep for AP Spanish because I don’t want him to learn odd vocabulary he’ll never need. (Spanish tidbit: you can learn the American spanish word for oven, the Mexican spanish word for oven, or the literary Spanish word for oven.)

I have become a mother who promotes teaching to the test.

What does that mean? I am trying to figure that out.

I offer to let him quit violin because he’s doing so much right now. But he understands being good at violin will help him get into college so he’ll continue playing. It’s not my dream-come-true reason for playing an instrument, but I’ll take it.

I decide not to give him Farewell to Manzanar because it’s not very difficult reading. Then I decide that I’ll end up with a kid who got rejected from Harvard and didn’t learn empathy. So I tell him to read Farewell to Manzanar. He is happy to have relatively short book. I am happy to have one piece of curriculum that teaches values I believe in.